ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Federal officials cleared the way Friday for a return to domestic horse slaughter, granting a southeastern New Mexico company’s application to convert its cattle facility into a horse processing plant.
In approving Valley Meat Co.’s plans to produce horse meat, Department of Agriculture officials also indicated they would grant similar permits to companies in Iowa and Missouri as early as next week.
With the action, the Roswell, N.M., company becomes the first operation in the nation licensed to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago.
But the company’s attorney said on Friday that he remained skeptical about Valley Meat Co.’s chances of opening any time soon, as the USDA must send an inspector to oversee operations and two animal rights groups have threated lawsuits to block the opening.
“This is very far from over,” attorney Blair Dunn said.
The company has been fighting for the permit for than a year, sparking an emotional debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions.
Valley Meat Co. wants to ship horse meat to countries where people cook with it or feed it to animals.
The plant would become the first horse slaughterhouse to operate in the country since Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for inspections at the plants. Congress reinstated the funding in 2011, but the USDA has been slow in granting permits, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program.
A return to domestic horse slaughter has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes about what is the most humane way to deal with the country’s horse overpopulation. The Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue said they would follow through on plans to file suit to try to block the resumption of horse slaughter.
Proponents of a return to domestic horse slaughter point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since slaughter was banned in 2006, leaving fewer humane options for horse owners who can’t afford to care for or euthanize their animals.